Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Engagement Marketing For Virtual Communities: The Story Of SwarmTeams - A Video Interview With Ken Thompson

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What is engagement marketing?

"Engagement marketing, sometimes called "participation marketing", is a marketing strategy that invites and encourages consumers to participate in the evolution of a brand. Rather than looking at consumers as passive receivers of messages, engagement marketers believe that consumers should be actively involved in the production and co-creation of marketing programs."

Photo credit: Ken Thompson

Ultimately, engagement marketing attempts to connect more strongly consumers with brands by "engaging" them in a dialogue and two-way, cooperative interaction.

I myself believe that this will increasingly be the preferred marketing approach gradually replacing traditional, interruptive advertising approaches.

While at the time we were not thinking in terms of marketing strategies, a few years back I have helped Ken Thompson communicate his vision for an emergent and more evolved approach to team collaboration: bioteaming. We co-wrote a Manifesto, and thereafter he went on to write some excellent books and to put his vision into a system that could be used for effective virtual marketing.

The service Ken created and launched back in 2006 is called SwarmTeams, and it is basically a community engagement system that facilitates people participation in lots of groups and on any channel across text messages, IM, email, RSS and the Web.

In essence, SwarmTeams let's people coordinate multiple groups using a bioteaming approach.

In this video interview I have asked Ken to explain in simple words what SwarmTeams is really about, how engagement marketing works, and what are the key differences between Twitter and similar social marketing tools and the service he has developed.

Here his video answers and the full text transcription for each one:

Intro by Robin Good



I started off and working with Robin we came up with this idea of bioteaming and bioteams, learning from nature's teams. Then a friend of mine said:

"that's all well and good Ken, but you're a software engineer, why don't you build a software product that helps people operate in a more bioteaming-like way?"

We developed a product called SwarmTeams. And SwarmTeams is basically a community engagement system that lets people engage with lots of groups, on any channel. Could it be text message, could it be instant message, could it be email, could it be RSS, could it be the web. And let's people coordinate multiple groups using a bioteaming principle.

We basically built the software product and we didn't really know what it was going to be used for. We put it out into the community and let people play with it, and it turned out that the area that people seem to be most interested in was where you have somebody who's got something, and somebody else who's a fan of that.

For example, a music band and its fans, in terms of helping the music band and their fans collaborate together for mutual benefit. The band gives the music fans advanced information, the music fans promote the band, they get rewarded and then everybody wins.

And lots and lots of little swarms all form around a music band and it has a high energy, and it's able to promote live activity and promote new music releases. The same idea works for soccer fans and their soccer team, it works for online gamers who are working together.

In fact, everybody who's got a cause and they want to create advocates who work on their behalf, the champion, the cause, engagement marketing for communities, and that's probably the first area where the bioteaming principle seems to work.


What Is SwarmTeams?

Ok, so what is SwarmTeams?

SwarmTeams is a web based service that lets communities engage together, using both the web and their mobile phones.

It's suitable for any form of engagement marketing of communities, be a brand engaging with consumers or a band engaging with its fans.

You can find more about it at If you're a music band it's absolutely free at the minute, otherwise it's sponsored by a brand or a music label.



We've just released a new product for the music industry, particularly in Europe, and we wanted it to be a little more trendy than SwarmTeams so we called it SwarmTribes, developed with the music industry, we piloted on a number of music bands for the last six months. And this basically is a band-fan engagement system that lets bands promote live activity and their music, and they do it through their top fans who get lots of rewards, and they love doing it for them.

Basically a band can engage maybe with 5% of its audience, and leave the 5% worry about the other 95%, so very economical, very high-engagement, very high click-through levels and open levels.


Twitter Vs. SwarmTeams

Twitter, lot of people ask me about Twitter. Twitter's a great product: anytime I blog I put my blog in Twitter.

How's SwarmTeams different than Twitter?

Twitter is a one-to-many system: when somebody Twitters to me, I don't know who else it Twittered to and I can't engage with anybody else in that group. So SwarmTeams is Twitter for groups and also the nice thing about SwarmTeams is you don't have to have any branding on it.

People can brand it anyway they want, so it's white labels Twitter for groups.


How to Grow A Swarm in The First Place

One of the things SwarmTeams does, is it uses the learning we find out from how ant colonies and bee colonies grow to help you grow a community to critical mass before you start to engage with it.

We've also used really nice tools such as OpenSwarms and website widgets to let you attract people to come to your cause, your brand, or your band in the first place. So we've lots of extra tools, specifically for growing communities that you won't get anywhere else.


Small Businesses

I talked a bit about how music fans have used the product but interestingly the product started off very much with my experience of working with small businesses.

I was working with a number of small businesses in environmental technology network, and it was my job to set up meetings. "Can you do it next Tuesday or can you do next Wednesday?". And I started off trying to do that by email and basically with an email you get 20% of people responding, and then my tickle ...

I had the bright idea:

"These people are on the road all the time. They're working in places where there's no broadband. Why don't we try to engage with them by text messaging?"

And that's one of the things that prompted SwarmTeams to start because when I started sending them text messages I was getting 95% response-rate within a couple of minutes of sending out the message. Can you do it Tuesday or can you do it Thursday? Tuesday or Thursday.

One of the things I realized early on it is the mobile phone has a special place for small businesses: they don't have the time, and possibly nor the IT literacy to do a lot of stuff that they're expected to do on the web or on their computers.

The other area SwarmTeams is very very effective is helping small businesses get together and come together almost like a big organization, but with a small organization's cost-base and high responsiveness.


Something For Robin's Readers

What I would like to say to your many many readers is there's a different way to engage in teams, social networks, virtual teams, and business networks.

And we don't have to invent it from scratch, nature has invented it and it evolved for us, and that's highly effective. So I would just ask you to challenge the way you think about your team and your groups, and maybe there's a totally different way to do it.


Originally shot and recorded by Robin Good for MasterNewMedia and first published on October 16th 2008 as "Engagement Marketing For Virtual Communities: The Story Of SwarmTeams - A Video Interview With Ken Thompson"

About the author

Ken Thompson is a researcher, writer, and entrepreneur focusing on the world of high performance teams, and on the transfer of the best teaming practices from the biological world. He has published an interesting paper entitled "The Bioteaming Manifesto" which illustrates the basic principles of his vision. Ken publishes his best articles at and has a mini-site dedicated to collaboration techniques.

Ken Thompson -
Reference: Bioteams
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posted by Nicolo' Canali De Rossi on Thursday, October 16 2008, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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